An Outdoor View: Big ones don't always get away

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011

One of the favorite movies that lights up the fly-specked screen of my memory is about a big halibut that almost got away.

It was September 1996. With Doug Green, Ken Wardwell and Paul Montat, I was aboard Doug's 34-foot Tollycraft, the "Suq'a." We were fishing near Cape Puget on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. To our disappointment, a swell from the gulf combined with tidal current to make drift jigging almost impossible. After two hours of fishing, we had only one lingcod, a few rockfish and no halibut. I was seasick. We were tired. Doug suggested that we make one last drift before heading for home.

That last drift was in 90 feet of water. We free-spooled our jigs to the bottom and started jigging. The second time I pulled upward, something pulled back. I could feel the hard head-jerks that usually mean it's a halibut.

"Oh, oh!" I said. "I think I've got a big one."

I had good reason say "Oh, oh." I was fishing with light gear, adequate for lingcod and rockfish, but not for large halibut. I'd made my lure by filling a 7-inch length of 1/2-inch copper pipe with lead shot, painting it white and applying silver tape. My rod was an old Lamiglas "Kenai River Special," shortened to 7 feet for jigging. My reel was an old Ambassadeur 6001-C that badly needed a new drag disk. The line was new, but only 20-pound-test. I was seriously under-gunned.

Doug thought I'd hooked bottom, but when he saw how fast the line was peeling off my reel, he knew it was a fish. He shifted into reverse and started backing down on the fish, trying to regain line.

I figured the fish was as good as gone. It was going to take all 200 yards of line and just keep on going. I felt helpless.

Then, for whatever reason, the fish stopped. Doug kept backing up until the boat was right over it. I retrieved most of my line. But now the fish just hung on the end of my line, straight up and down, a dead weight. I expected the line to break at any moment. It was all I could do to hold onto the rod. Then things went from bad to worse.

The fish started running again, faster and faster. This time, I was sure it would spool me. When the reel's drag became hot and gave out, I put my thumb on the spool, blistering it but not slowing the fish. With hardly any line left on the spool, I thumbed down hard, expecting the line to break. Instead, the fish again stopped and hung there, as before.

Doug again moved the boat directly above the fish. With both thumbs on the spool, I pulled. The rod arced downward. The line sang in the guides. I lifted with everything I had. The fish didn't move. The fight had been going on for 40 minutes, and no end was in sight. I was exhausted.

"You'll never get it in with that outfit," Paul said.

I wasn't about to give up. A few cranks of the reel at a time, I slowly began to recover line. But our troubles weren't over. The screws holding one of the side plates on the reel loosened, allowing the reel to slip out of gear into "free-spool." Ken saved the day by tightening the screws with a knife blade. I was back in business.

Luckily, the fish hadn't moved during the frantic fix. Now, with me applying steady pressure, it came slowly up. Doug, Ken and Paul took positions around me, ready with .410 shotgun, harpoon and gaff.

It was over in seconds. As soon as the big halibut surfaced, it was shot, harpooned, gaffed and heaved over the rail. It was 72 inches long and weighed about 200 pounds.

That fish should have been one that got away. The odds were in its favor. I was abysmally unprepared. I suppose it proves the old proverb, "Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile."

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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